I’m overwhelmed, working here. My second day, I cracked the entire length of the nail on my big toe, about ¾ the way down. I am terrified of it breaking off, and just the sight of it disgusts me. The top part is all purple and crushed, while the bottom is stained red with blood and chipped pieces of nail.
What has happened to my pretty, pink and white pedicured feet?
I was foolish enough to play football with the boys at the shelter, that’s what.
The children were exceedingly concerned when they saw me limping off the field. Once a single child caught glimpse of my toe, she began to scream at the sight and the others all came running. They were chanting “So sorry, auntie, sorry, oh noh sorry… Fohgeeve us, please! Auntie!”
They crowded around me, pounding their chests with their fists, begging forgiveness and threatening the boy who had kicked the offending ball- with death. Together they formed quite the violent little mob.
I think the children thought I was going to cane them all, in revenge for my pummeled nail. In fact, they were all so distraught that I knew I couldn’t openly cry with them watching, despite the pain I was feeling. I gritted my teeth into a stiff, manic grin and reassured them that I was okay, that no one was in trouble. “Accidents happen!” I sang out, carefree as I could muster.
Before I could escape the heap of alarmed, angry, and noisy children at my feet, Auntie Diana approached me, carrying Fiskars scissors. “OOH!” she exclaimed upon seeing the blood. “Bee steel, yo. I remove dah nail fore you, got dah cuttahs heah. ”
… No thank you, Auntie.
I excused myself and went into the girls’ washroom to clean up and (let’s be honest) have a good cry in privacy, away from the concerned crowd. With a sprained ankle on one foot and on the other, a newly missing toenail, I was hurting and very much freaked out.
Little did I know this incident was only the beginning of the challenges I would be facing here at the Shelter for Abused Children.
The washroom was appalling. I ended up crying there because of the condition of the room, not because of the pain in my toe. It felt as if everything, all at once- my pain, the abuse and neglect the children had been through, the adults' indifference to their suffering, and now this washroom- was leading up to this very moment in which I felt completely overcame by the weight of it all. The stall was covered in cobwebs and insects, and the sinks didn’t produce any water. The toilets didn't flush. Most disturbingly, there was no toilet paper or soap to be found.
This is especially problematic because many of the children seem to be quite sick, with body-wracking coughs and open sores on their arms and legs. Children often forget to be hygienic, even with the American availability of flushable wipes and automatic soap dispensers- how realistic was it to expect these kids to even think to ask for paper and soap every time they used the washroom? It seemed like an aggressive breeding ground for infection.
Upon asking the staff, I was informed that the children tend to steal and horde washroom supplies, and that is why they are all kept in the office. The children must ask for paper or soap if they want it, and then they are only given what they will use in the one visit. I question the rationale of that response to the theft- wouldn’t a smaller supply create a greater motivation for stealing and hording? Events transpired later which made me question the truthfulness of this already inadequate explanation altogether…but more on that soon.
Weak and pampered and American as I am, I maintain an expectation that my day-to-day life will not consist of- or even include- pain; so I sat out of the games for the rest of the day. I felt sorry for myself and exhausted while I halfheartedly watched the kids, nursing my toe and secretly wondering why no one had made a bigger fuss over my now non-existant nail.
But after I'd calmed down, I began to actually see what was right in front of me- and what I saw made me feel very ashamed of myself. Despite the bright sunshine, the kids didn't seem to take note of their own disabilities, their own brutal coughs, their open sores, their dark bruises, or even their angry scars.
In the end, my hurt foot could not compare to the injuries many of the children have sustained, some at the hands of their own guardians. No one ever told them that life would be painless, or fair, and they clearly don’t hold that expectation. Perhaps they gave each injury a moment of acknowledgment- "Oh, so sorry,"- and then shrugged and moved onto the next thing, because they had to, because that's all they are able to do. One injury blends in with the next, without any single incident standing out in their minds. In this world, pain has continuity. It is only the source of pain, or type of pain, that varies.
And so accordingly, one by one, the children lost interest in my bloody stump. They possess knowledge I could never have- of the ceaseless opportunities (and painful probabilities) for agony both physical and emotional, which life steadily dispenses. Nevertheless, they wandered back into the field- into the next moment, fearlessly fighting the good fight, to play again.